Updated: Mar 13, 2022
You may have noticed many athletes recently sporting perfectly round bruises on their backs and shoulders (think Michael Phelps at the Olympics a couple of years ago). Although cupping has recently become trendy, cupping therapy has actually been around since ancient times in Chinese medicine and in other cultures.
What is it?
Cupping therapy is a very popular holistic healing method. In cupping therapy, the therapist will light something on fire (like a cloth with alcohol, herbs, etc) inside a glass cup and then place the cup upside down on your skin. While the cup cools, it creates a vacuum which causes your skin to rise and blood vessels to expand. The best way to explain it is like a giant hickey, honestly. Most people use cupping therapy on their back, shoulders, and neck. You can also cup your arms, legs, hips, face, and even your stomach! (It's great for promoting healthy digestion).
There are many different types and methods of cupping, however, leading alternative medicine practitioners recognize two main types: dry cupping and wet cupping. Dry cupping is simply as described above. Wet cupping involves making small slices on the skin and drawing some blood out into the cup. Some therapists might have you lay still with the cups on, others might have you move specific muscles to improve blood flow.
What are the benefits?
Many people use cupping therapy to reduce pain, inflammation, improve blood flow, heal old injuries, and some even use it like a deep tissue massage. There are claims that cupping therapy can reduce cellulite and even reduce the visibility of varicose veins, although I wasn't able to find any studies that supported this. I also asked my acupuncturist about that, and she stated that cupping can help improve blood flow around varicose veins and possibly prevent further development of them, but it wouldn't get rid of preexisting varicose veins.
Scientifically speaking, there have been a few studies done on the effectiveness on cupping, but they are limited. One 2015 study concluded that cupping therapy may be beneficial for pain-related conditions, acne, and facial paralysis. Another 2016 study showed that patients with chronic neck and shoulder pain had their pain levels reduced by half, after just one treatment. While most studies admit that there is still further research to be done on the long-term effectiveness of cupping therapy, the good news is, there aren't really any known adverse effects of cupping for healthy individuals. That's the kind of therapy I like!
Personally, I have been using cupping therapy to heal the pain and inflammation in my shoulders. I have suffered from chronic pain in my shoulders for as long as I can remember due to some hip problems and my body compensating for that. There was a time when I thought I was going to have to go to an orthopedic surgeon for my shoulders, but I'm happy to say that a few lifestyle changes have improved it drastically. A combination of yoga, acupuncture, cupping therapy and the occasional massage help me to manage my shoulder and back pain, coupled with an anti-inflammatory diet.
Where can I get it done?
In my experience, cupping therapy is typically offered by acupuncturists, holistic healers, chiropractors, massage therapists, and some sports medicine clinics. You can expect to pay somewhere between $40-$80 per session, depending on your needs and what other treatments you are receiving. Cupping is often combined with acupuncture, massage, chiropractic adjustments, and other treatments.
I go to One:Om in Houston Heights. I have been seeing Anne Stanley for acupuncture and cupping therapy for the last 3 years and she is amazing!
What can I expect?
My acupuncturist let me take some videos while she was cupping me, so that I could show my readers what it looks like. She also talks through what she's doing in the videos. You can watch those on my Instagram stories.
The average cupping session takes about 30 minutes alone. As mentioned before, cupping is often combined with other treatments, so the amount of time can vary. The traditional method of cupping is lighting a fire into a glass cup, then placing the cup on the patient and leaving it on for several minutes. Some practitioners may move the cups around as well. A more modern method of cupping involves using cups that have suction holes on top of them, and the practitioner uses a tool to suction the air out. Your practitioner should verbally walk you through everything that they will be doing before commencing.
Does it hurt?
I am often asked if it hurts- it's definitely not pleasant, but it's tolerable. You may experience moderate pain if you are cupping an injury. I describe it as a "hurt so good" pain, similar to a deep-tissue massage.
What is the healing process like?
You can expect those marks to slowly fade over the course of 7-10 days. The first time will always take longer to heal. You can expect to be sore/tender (like after a really intense massage) for 1-2 days afterwards. Make sure to move your body, stretch, and drink lots of water. For best results, I recommend doing 2-3 sessions within a close time frame. If you go once, then wait several weeks or months, you're basically starting the healing process over again.